While there is no established direct link between cell phone use and cancer, there's no harm in being cautious, say doctors and experts.

Is it dangerous or not? Does use of cell phones ultimately cause tumours in the brain? Or is it just another media-hyped scare not vindicated by sufficient research? This is a question the world is asking. Okay, may be not the whole world but a lot of it considering there are about five billion cell phones in use worldwide with an estimated 80 crore in India.  

A panel of experts –– International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reporting to WHO –– have said that cell phones could possibly be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and heavy cell phone usage might be associated with increased risk for a malignant form of brain tumours called glioma.  

Children more vulnerable

Experts suggested that children are more vulnerable given their thinner skulls, developing nervous systems and longer duration of exposure in a lifetime compared to adults.  The IARC did not conduct any new research but rather reviewed existing exposure data, studies of cancer in humans and experimental animals and other relevant data. There isn't enough long-term data to establish a direct link, said experts. But there is enough information to issue an alert.

Reactions ranged from great alarm resulting in alternation in cell phone use to mild concern and then carrying on as usual to total disregard given that there is no conclusive evidence.

Whose response is right, we asked experts. All doctors ‘cautiously' advised ‘caution'. Cautiously because they believe there is not enough concrete evidence, so they don't want to trigger panic; and caution because they feel some concern is warranted.

Dr. Vinod Raina, Professor and Head, Medical Oncology, AIIMS, New Delhi, says: “There is an alert. So, one has to be careful. What we have is only a suspicion, not conclusive evidence. I have not seen any patient with this cancer-cause so far. But then, again, cancers can take years to develop. And they are difficult to cure. So, since a suspicion has been raised, I would advise caution. I recommend minimal use of cell phones, keeping them slightly away from the ear/head during use and using landlines whenever possible.”  Incidentally, the doctor follows these precautions himself.  

Cell phone-related health is an area of special interest for Dr. Anusheel Munshi, Associate Professor, Radiation Oncology, Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai: “The report does not report any new finding. Rather it is the expert opinion of eminent leaders in scientific thought based on current literature. As of date, no study has categorically implicated cell phones as a causal factor for brain tumour although there have been suggestions to that effect." But he adds: “Lifetime exposure to the magnetic fields created by the phones is increasing. Mobiles are held tightly against the head. The entire situation gets more complicated of various “biases” or errors which are an intrinsic component of the studies used to assess the health effects of cell phones. Secondly, the effects of cell phones take long to manifest. In some cases this may be as long as10 years or more. Finally, cell phone technology is advancing rapidly and it is claimed that the electromagnetic exposure is progressively less with newer phones. Electromagnetic radiation is governed by an interesting law known as the inverse square law. Essentially this means: if we increase distance from the source by a factor of 2, the exposure gets reduced by 1/4th. This is why distance from the device is a critical factor.”  He too advises reduced use of cell phones, especially by children.

Sceptic speak

Yet, many feel this issue is much ado over nothing. If you examine the studies carefully, they are filled with ‘maybes', ‘coulds', and ‘mights'; so, if using a cell phone is fraught with danger, then so is crossing a road or taking a flight. Why should we reduce the use of our most useful accessory and hurt our professional and personal lives without proof? Cell phones have been put in the same hazard category as engine exhaust and lead, and we are exposed to them every day. So what's the fuss about, asks one sceptic. ‘Death by cell phone', ‘Can mobiles kill?' are just sensational headlines, another snorted. 

Pankaj Mohindroo, President, Indian Cellular Association, reacts: “There is no need for worry. If you read the report carefully it only talks of possibilities not certainties. Cell phones are only given a 2B Grade radiation-wise. Moreover, only ionising radiation is carcinogenic and cell phones emit non-ionising radiation, which puts them in the same category as microwaves, TVs, FM radios, etc. So, fears are completely exaggerated.”   

But many are rattled by the report. They now see it as a little monster and are altering usage patterns beginning with reduced use, even if it entails several inconveniences including slower response-time. Years, hence, if the report turns out to be a false alarm, we would have made life a little difficult for ourselves, they reason. But if it turns out to be true…they shudder to think what they would have done to themselves…despite this warning.

A lot of precautionary advice is doing the rounds; some sensible, some dubious. One such recommendation is mobiles should be carried not on the left pocket (next to the heart) but on the right. However, Dr. Rajeshwari Nayak, Consultant Cardiologist, Apollo Hospital, Chennai says, “We have no recommendations about cell phone placement for normal, healthy individuals even from ACC and AHA. We recommend keeping cell phones away from the chest only to those with artificial pacemakers and defibrillators.”

Regarding greater risk to children, Hyderabad-based paediatrician G.V. Shanti agrees hard facts are awaited: “But for strong physical and psychological reasons, we always recommend minimal use of gadgets: TV, videogames, computers, cell phones. So, it's no or minimal cell phone use by kids and young teenagers.”

So, the jury is still out. Doctors and other experts say the current reports point to necessary areas for further research to find out whether cell phones actually cause cancer and if so the mechanism thereby. All of us are waiting to know.  

Play it safe

Opinion is divided and further evidence awaited. But to those who wish to be cautious in the meanwhile, here is doctors' advice.

Use cell phones for essential and urgent calls only

Use landlines at office/home

Text instead of calling

When use is unavoidable:

Keep calls short

Switch ears

Keep phone a few mm away from the ear

When on hold/waiting for calls to be taken, place cell phone on a table

To keep radiation away from head, use a hands-free

Use the phone when there are strong signals. Weak signals cause more radiation to be emitted

Speaking in enclosed spaces may be more harmful. So in a car, pull down windows when speaking

Don't use a cell phone while charging it

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012